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Perfect Pointers for Provincial Pensioners

How the Horowhenua arts centre overcame the sketchy times of COVID to thrive and bring the community together again.

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The past year has taught us that working from home is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

Especially when you enjoy sharing that cup of tea with a group of like-minded creatives. 

It’s 11am on a Monday morning. Inside the Horowhenua Arts Centre in Levin, tutor Neil Perfect has his drawing class happy and hard at their work. 

Cups of hot beverages are prevalent in the massive workspace, giving the vessels a status that borders on the essential. 

Each to their own

The class of 20 retired and semi-retired people are working on projects of their own choosing, but all are making use of the fundamental skills, gentle advice and self-directed lessons Perfect has empowered in his students.

Philippa Paterson skims a book of drawings of Australian settler homes.  Bronwen Gunn is sketching using the portrait of a loved one as inspiration. Former comic book store owner, now Methodist minister, Ian Body has comics for his muse.

Quietly circumnavigating the room is Perfect, offering guidance when sought.

Neil Perfect offers advice to a student. Photo: Supplied.

“Neil has a real knack for knowing where people are at and how to make them comfortable with the rules and basics of drawing,” says Paterson.

“You come along each week and if you have a problem, he can explain it in a way that you find the answer yourself.”

Perfect, who teaches classes of all ages says “whether a student is seven or 70, tutoring is tutoring.

“You’re still teaching form, size, shape and tonal values. You’re helping them critique their work and solve problems themselves. It’s about helping them to express themselves through art the best way they can.”

Drawing inspiration

With a mission to promote art to the wider community through the Horowhenua Art Society, Perfect’s drawing classes are joined by classes in painting modelling and sculpture. 

There is also a class for “nervous” beginners on Wednesdays.

And it was a nervous time for all involved in the Art Society during the post-COVID Lockdown days as student numbers took a downturn.

“In this drawing class alone, we went from 20 students to around seven,” says Perfect.

You're never too old to learn at Horowhenua Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied.

“I think some people realised they didn’t need to do so much. They learnt to enjoy slowing down, while others were a bit nervous about returning to a communal space.

“I questioned it myself. What I was doing and how busy I was. But when you live on your own, it’s important to get out there.”

Over the ensuing months as we all came to grips with the 'new normal', Perfect says the drawing group made it back to full strength, thanks to a combination of returning and new students keen to try their hand.

Getting back into it

Bronwen Gunn. Photo: Supplied.

A seven-year veteran of the classes, Bronwen Gunn says that whilst missing the classes, post-lockdown anxiety was something she needed to overcome.

“It was good to be able to come back after COVID but like many, I’d got used to social distancing so I did feel a little vulnerable coming back into a group setting.

“But reconnecting was good. I enjoy the interaction within the class and being able to ask Neil for advice is a big reason why having a space like this is so important. You can’t talk to YouTube.”

Disciplines like drawing and painting can often be a solitary activity. But many in the group believe since COVID and equally, the death of the old night school system, the need for communal spaces for people to practice their art is more important than ever.

Philippa Paterson. Photo: Supplied.

“Night school has been chopped off at the knees, so this provides a community outlet that otherwise would not be here. Having spaces like this is very important,” says Paterson.

The value of these communal art spaces, in towns like Levin are illustrated by Body, who after moving to Palmerston North, still makes the 50km trip south to Levin to still be a part of the group.

Ian Body. Photo: Supplied.

“This centre is a wonderful place. It’s a really nice group and I respond well to Neil’s way of teaching,” says Body.

“For me to have a place to come where you can draw is important. You think you might do something at home. But you don’t. Not only that, here we can all improve. Regardless of our age or skill level, we all want to get better. 

“Art can be an individual thing but sometimes it takes being in a communal space to bring out the best in you.”

Ian Body at work. Photo: Supplied.

In the centre’s adjoining gallery, the work of the students is on display and for sale. As Perfect emphasises “this is not just occupational therapy.

“We work on improving and raising the standard of work that is being produced in class, so when the light comes on, when you see someone get it and they apply it to their work, it’s so rewarding. For myself and more importantly, for the artists themselves.”

And the tea?

“Everyone makes a good cuppa here,” says Perfect.

Written by

Bevan Sanson

10 Jun 2021

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